November 27, 2016

Judge Allows Claim for Corporate Negligence Against Physicians Practice Group to Survive Preliminary Objections

Corporate negligence claims against a physicians practice group are often pled by plaintiffs in medical malpractice cases in an effort to implicate additional insurance coverage and bring the practice group of a treating physician into the folds of the litigation.  Typically, these claims are stricken through preliminary objections.  However, the Honorable James A. Gibbons of the Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas issued an opinion and order on June 8, 2016, allowing a direct claim for corporate negligence against a physicians practice group to survive preliminary objections.  Since that time, plaintiffs' attorneys have been citing the opinion in an effort to keep corporate negligence claims in the case, which would otherwise be disallowed.

Astleford v. Delta Medix, No. 15-CV-5134 (C.P. Lacka.Co. 2016 Gibbons, J.), is a medical malpractice action filed by plaintiff Kathleen Astleford against Delta Medix, P.C., Delta Medix, P.C. t/a The Center for Comprehensive Cancer Care (the Delta Medix defendants) and Dr. Andrew Turrisi, M.D.  The underlying allegations of the claims revolve around Dr. Turrisi, who was an employee of the Delta Medix defendants and the plaintiff's treating physician.

In her complaint, the plaintiff sought claims against Delta Medix defendants for vicarious liability for the alleged negligence of Dr. Turrisi, as well as claims of direct liability based upon the theory of corporate negligence.  Counsel for the defendants filed preliminary objections, asserting that Pennsylvania law does not presently recognize a claim for corporate negligence against a physicians practice group (i.e., Delta Medix).

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recognized that a hospital can be liable for direct negligence or corporate negligence in the seminal case of Thompson v. Nason Hospital, 591 A.2d 703 (Pa.1991).  Since that time, liability for corporate negligence has been extended to Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) and "comprehensive medical care providers," including nursing homes and the management companies that oversee nursing homes.

Counsel for the defendants relied upon the case of Sutherland v. Monongahela Valley Hospital, 856 A.2d 55 (Pa.Super.2004), wherein the Superior Court refused to impose corporate liability upon a physician's out-patient office and reasoned as follows:

We note that the policy considerations underlying the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's creation of the theory of corporate liability for hospitals are not present in the situation of a physician's office.  In Thompson, the Supreme Court recognized that "the corporate hospital of today has assumed the role of a comprehensive health center with responsibility for arranging and coordinating the total health care of its patients."  Thompson at 706.  The same cannot be said for a physician's practice group.  Accordingly, we decline…to extend the negligence principles contemplated by Thompson to the case sub judice.

In the Astleford case, Judge Gibbons denied the defendants' preliminary objection to the corporate claim holding that the Sutherland case was not dispositive on the issue.  The judge stated the Supreme Court has noted that "a defendant is not categorically exempt from liability simply because appellate decisional law has not specifically addressed a theory of liability in a particular context.  Categorical exemptions from liability exist…only where the General Assembly has acted to create explicit policy-based immunities, e.g. to protect the public purse.  Where either no immunity exists, or the legislative branch created exceptions to an immunity legislatively conferred, the default general rule of possible liability operates."

Judge Gibbons held that the defendants had not pointed to any action of the General Assembly that conferred the benefit of immunity upon the Delta Medix defendants and refused to do so at the preliminary objection stage, thus denying the objection to the claim.  The judge did note that the defendants retain the right to challenge this claim at a later stage of the litigation.


What It Means to You

Since June 8, 2016, when this opinion was filed, Cipriani & Werner attorneys have begun to see plaintiffs' attorneys citing this opinion in an effort to combat preliminary objections to claims for corporate negligence against physicians practice groups.  Of note, this opinion is not precedential.  Additionally, the defendants in the Astleford case arguably do not fit within the traditional definition of a "physicians practice group" in that the group comprises multiple medical specialties working in conjunction to provide care to patients.  This is an important factual distinction that must be made if you are presented with a complaint seeking a corporate negligence claim against a more traditional practice group.

In the interim, we recommend that preliminary objections be filed to complaints seeking claims for corporate negligence against a physicians practice group as this opinion is non-precedential and the facts of the Astleford case can, in most circumstances, be differentiated in terms of the definition of what constitutes a physicians practice group.